Saturday, September 30, 2006

Home made soup from my garden

I cannot tell a lie: I prefer eating at home these days, mostly because my garden is bursting with produce. This is a picture of the yellow tomato soup I made the other day.

It was delicious and had a real tomato-ey flavor, despite the yellow color. It had exactly two ingredients:

1) Lillian's yellow heirloom tomatoes from my garden and
2) garlic, also from my garden.

It doesn't get much easier than that!
First, I boil the tomatoes each for about a minute, and peel the skins off. (The tomatoes get hot and can burn your hands, but if you wait another minute, it won't hurt!) Then quarter them and put them in a pot with garlic. Let simmer for about an hour, longer if you want a thicker soup. Then put all in a blender.

This is the way food is meant to be eaten: really fresh, totally organic of course, and just brimful of flavor.

Now, if we could only get some restaurants around here with the same philosophy....
Does anyone else around here grow Lillian's yellow? They are absolutely my favorite tomato, even better than the red tomatoes. I don't know why, they just are. They also come very late in the season. I've always been fond of late bloomers.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Illium Cafe: Where It's At

Troy is no longer lacking for coffee houses. We used to have just one-- the Daily Grind-- and now we have four and counting (Daily Grind, which moved a year or so ago to Third Street; Java ++, next to RPI; Illium Cafe; Shake Shake Mamas; and for a while the mysterious Mean Bean, whose atmosphere was just as uninspired as its coffee and food selections).

I want to get this out of the way up front: "Illium" as a word does not exist. There are two meanings for the spelling "Ilium" (*one* "L"): one of them means "Troy" (as in our intended meaning here); the other means part of the large intestine.


So "Illium" is some new kind of meaning. Oh and another thing to get out of the way: The Illium Cafe web site does not appear to be working at this moment. I'm including the link in case it decides to get its act together, though. Illium Cafe site here soon we hope.

And for me anyway, the jury is still out on exactly what this cafe will mean to Troy, as in Ilium, as in Ilium fuit, Troja est. For the past year or so, the Ilium cafe, despite its ideal location, was a fairly humdrum cafe, with just-okay coffee, some good tea choices, and dicey food. Once, I had a piece of quiche there that was the worst quiche I've ever had. And quiche should be easy to make!

Anyway, now there is a new owner and chef, Larry Shepici, whose Tosca Grill will be opening soon-- in November.

My first experience at the new and improved Illium was wonderful. I ordered a soup of the day-- there are usually two or three choices-- and it was one of the best potato soups I've ever had, potato with jalapeno. It was smooth and creamy with none of that watery taste that can sometimes bog a good potato soup down. It came with homemade croutons on top-- just the right touch. For dessert I had a slice of chocolate polenta cake, which was good and mysteriously trendy (see recent entry on Nicole's Bistro at Quackenbush). I can't say I'd order it again, but it was better than the choices used to be.

My second experience was okay, but not as blissful. I got the grilled vegetables on ciabatta, and it was just so-so. Plus, the service had started to annoy me; both times I've been there there has been some confusion as to where I place my order, when I pay, and exactly how the food is to be conveyed to my table (or not). Sometimes they bring the food over but sometimes (as when I ordered on my second visit a peanut butter cookie) they leave it sitting on the counter for you to pick up.

Plus, on my second visit I was sitting in front of two people who were apparently just released from the mental hospital. Now, I am a strong advocate of mental health. However, it is somewhat distressing to be trying to enjoy one's lunch when the conversation nearby consists of hopeless, despairing, and more depressing. ("If you want to be a shut-in, you can be a shut-in." "I'm not that kind of sick. I can't just lie down and get better.")

This is the problem Troy is up against. Troy seems to have attracted, with the power of a magnet, all the wretched, the tired, and the poor that the rest of America no longer has any time for.

However, at least for now, we're getting some decent coffee.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Nicole's Bistro at Quackenbush

For our anniversary, my husband and I went to Nicole's Bistro at Quackenbush, a French restaurant that has gotten excellent reviews in Times Union among other local rags. It's in an old brick building (dating at least to the 1700s, perhaps earlier) with wide worn wood planks and a cozy feel. There's a narrow bar at the front. Nicole's Bistro is located at 25 Quackenbush House Albany, right off 787. They think the building was at one point a Dutch family's kiln and pottery building, and they also think the building served as a garrison during the French and Indian War.

All intriguing stuff, really.

But what really counts is food. And is it good?

I'm going to depart from the other restaurant reviewers and say that honestly, I think you can do better for the money.

I started with a mixed-greens salad, pretty standard, but in with the nice fresh greens were several rotten leaves. And I don't mean just slightly yellow. I mean almost composted, and slimy.

Now, come on!! Everyone knows that when you buy greens, some of them can go bad pretty quickly. But you clean them, and you pick out the bad ones, folks. Don't serve them to your clients at a supposedly fancy restaurant. Yuck.

My husband's tomato and mozzarella appetizer with basil pesto was quite good; they had in-season flavorful tomatoes (why does *he* always luck out?!)

My scallop entry was very good: diver's scallops with a lime-cilantro sauce that wasn't too overpowering. They were fresh and cooked to perfection, and came with slivered carrots and tender haricots verts. My husband got the steak au poivre in brandy sauce, which was quite good, although they did NOT cook it well as he had requested. He was okay with it but really was craving more of the poivre, the pepper flavors, that come with true steak au poivre.

Desserts were only so-so. I got the peach tarte tatin, which was flavorful but texturally disappointing (peaches kinda mushy, and ditto on the crust). Hubs got a slice of the chocolate polenta, which was really a kind of ganache with some polenta in it. It was good, but seems trendy (see: upcoming blog entry on the Ilium cafe!!). And this seems really picky, but they did not fill my one-cup teapot for mint tea with hot water; it was only maybe 3/4 full, and as we were the only ones there at the time, it seemed kind of-- stingy.

The walls are painted pink, there are some charming prints of Albany. But the whole effect of the paint, the somewhat shabby carpeting, the self-consciousness of the whole 'fancy dining' experience--was overweening. A fancy (read: expensive) restaurant should be classy and understated, so that you are made to feel that you are experiencing the ordinary elevated, as it really ought to be. The best upscale restaurants make me think: "Every night should be like this! This is how to live!" Not: "God, this is stuffy and expensive, let's go home and get more comfortable." True fine dining elevates the mundane until it feels beautiful, and makes the exotic comfortable.

The rotten salad greens detail was bad, but oddly, not enough to make me overall nix on the restaurant. No: it was the combination of so-so food (for the price: we paid a total of $97 plus tip, and no drinks) plus the somewhat worn atmosphere more than anything else. There were a number of other parties dining when we got there, but we closed the place (at what, like 9 pm I think. Come on people, we can keep restaurants open longer around here!! This is a complaint against Albany in general, though, not this particular restaurant). Our waiter gave good recommendations, and they kept an eye on us, but something was missing (maybe excitement? Joie de vivre?)

Well, we need fine restaurants, and I wish Nicole's Bistro the best. They are close to something really good, and maybe it's gone downhill since the previous rave reviews. I think what they need is a revamping of the menu (less sauce on the whole, more simplicity, some more vegetarian/pasta entrees), maybe a vacation for the proprietors, and some better feng shui. It can't be good for your karma to be so close to 787 (Take out the old carpeting, paint it red instead of pink, play some soft music and replace those dorky vine-encrusted candle holders on the table with something simple and classic.)